True Stories + Future = Perfect Partners!

True Stories is a six-level reading series that has been an enduring favorite of teachers and students for 25 years. These popular texts consist of human-interest news stories that are geared towards adults.

The series can be used as a stand-alone reading course or as a complement to Future, a six-level adult English course that equips learners with transferable academic, workplace, and English communication skills.

The color-coordinated book covers make it easy to match the levels in True Stories with the levels in Future.

Why are True Stories and Future perfect partners?

Pair units in Future with thematically related units in True Stories to:

  • accelerate your students’ progress in reading
  • recycle and reinforce the vocabulary of the topics
  • prompt students to share their own “true stories” related to the topic
  • enliven your lessons with believe-it-or-not reading selections

Sandra Heyer, the True Stories author explains the rationale between this association between Future and True Stories:

“I teach reading in the four-level Adult ESL program in my community. I go from level to level with True Stories and teach a 20-30-minute reading lesson in each class.

When I walked into a classroom with the books, often the teacher asked if I had a story about the topic they’re working on–health, work, housing, etc. I usually did. The teachers and I noticed that a lot of the vocabulary in the life-skills unit reappeared in a theme-related story, and that often the story got students talking about their own experiences related to the theme. Another plus was that the story seemed to change the energy in the room—that the story about the woman with the bad knee being chased by a bear, for example, offset the seriousness of a lesson on illnesses and injuries. So, the teachers and I began to coordinate our lessons.”

We want to share this partnership with you. Therefore, we have created handy correlation documents to help you quickly match units in Future with complementary units in True Stories.

Download them here.

Ten Tips to Accelerate Academic Listening

 By Michael Rost

Academic listening is a special kind of listening. It is listening in order to encounter, understand, learn, discuss, and remember new ideas. No matter what your teaching situation, helping students become better academic listeners is an important part of language teaching.

Over the years, through teaching, observation, and research, I have come up with ten teaching tips that can accelerate academic listening.

Tip 1: Use great content

Academic listening is really about content learning. You want the content to do the teaching! Your goal as a teacher is to get the students excited about the new content and about sharing their perspectives. It is easiest to do this when the content itself is compelling, when there is substance that is really worth trying to understand. Whether you are teaching history or math, biology or art, literature or physiology, try packaging and presenting the content in ways that make it more interesting and provocative. Try supplementing the content with different forms of multimedia (audio tracks, video clips, web pages) and activities (tasks, games, experiments, surveys) in order to make it more engaging and more motivating for your students. (See Philp and Duchesne, 2016 for a clear summary on the interaction of engagement and motivation.)

But what about the language teaching aspect? Don’t we need to teach the language? Of course, yes. But it is well established that the most effective way to teach the language is through the learning of content in the target language — provided that there is sufficient language support (See Cenoz, 2015 for discussion of the role of language support in L2 content instruction.)

Tip 2: Teach “academic conversations” as a social learning tool

Academic listening is also about exploring, negotiating, and sharing ideas and learning new perspectives. Classroom learning of academic listening depends crucially on the learners having frequent collaborative “academic conversations” with one another — and with you, the teacher. Learners need to feel safe brainstorming, sharing personal thoughts, questioning ideas, reacting emotionally at times, and working out problems understanding one another and the course content.

But trying to have meaningful academic conversations often runs into a wall. Left to their own devices, most learners, regardless of age, will settle on minimal verbal and non-verbal interaction in the classroom, often attempting to finish learning tasks as quickly — and with as few words — as possible. The challenge for learners is that academic learning involves making our thinking explicit, so it is necessary to teach and reward the use of explicit gambits in order to develop this elaborated style of thinking (Crawford and Zwiers, 2011; Zwiers and Soto, 2017).

Implementing this tip involves two practical steps: (1) presenting conversation prompts, interaction models, and academic phrases and (2) promoting “positive regard” for others. Presenting interaction models is best done by identifying specific critical thinking skills as “focus points” for learning. The most commonly recognized critical thinking skills are: identify main ideas, comparing similarities, contrasting differences, attributing facts to sources, evaluation of validity, inferring missing information, explaining results, and applying information to solve problems.

Here is an example of displaying the relationship between focus, conversation gambit (for posing questions), and language frame (for responding and formulating ideas).

Focus Conversation Gambit Language Frame
Describe the main idea.

 

What is the gist of the lecture?

What do you think is the central idea?

What was this part of the lecture about?

The presentation was mainly about…

The speaker is basically saying…

The main idea of the talk was…

The second aspect is promoting “positive regard,” which means seeking and acknowledging each speaker’s contribution. Positive regard can be achieved through active listening to one another’s ideas, supporting each other’s efforts to learn, and respecting alternate points of view. Teachers assist through modeling and monitoring of conversational interaction to be sure that “positive regard” is systematically practiced (or at least aimed for!) in all classroom interactions (Singer, 2018).

Tip 3: Shift responsibility to the learner

The essential insight behind this tip is: It is the learners themselves who decide whether or not they want to understand. Set up optimal learning conditions — and let the learners do the work. This suggestion may seem obvious, but I have often seen learning get short-circuited when teachers try to guide or help their students too much. Think in terms of letting the students take the lead, in whatever ways you can. Have the students run the technology, let them select content supplements and decide on activities when possible, have them lead group discussions, have them give presentations, even have them design the tests.

But are we being too “harsh” if we really think learners decide whether or not they want to understand? Shouldn’t we be making the content easier for the students to understand if they are having difficulties with the language? Well, yes and no. The paradox is that by setting high expectations and allowing the students to struggle to succeed, we are actually empowering them with the skills and strategies they need outside of the classroom (See Ferlazzo, 2016 and Asgedom, 2014 for powerful discussions of this issue of teachers challenging students with high standards.)

Tip 4: Teach “active listening” as a reliable learning strategy

 Active listening is more than the notion of “being animated when you listen.” It is actually a broader range of cognitive and emotional activity that could be described as “engaged processing.” Active listening starts with a mindset: an open-mindedness, curiosity, and a “positive regard” for the speaker and his or her ideas — a supportive intention to try to understand without judging. Beyond these intentional aspects, active listening involves the specific teachable behaviors of paying full attention, asking clarification questions, paraphrasing, reflecting, summarizing, and asking creative follow-up questions to probe further into the speaker’s meaning (Rost and Wilson, 2013).

For all of these behaviors, there are specific gambits we can teach students to help them adopt an active listening mindset:

  • Asking clarification questions: “When you said …, did you mean…?” “I’d like to ask if you can explain more about…”
  • Paraphrasing: “What I hear you saying is…” “Let me see if I understand you correctly. I believe you said…”
  • Reflecting: “That is very interesting to me. It reminds me of…” “I see a parallel between … and ….”
  • Asking follow-up questions: Is there another way to think about this? For example, is it possible that…?”

I often talk with teachers who believe that active listening is way beyond their learners’ abilities. After all, their students may be struggling with basic vocabulary and grammar issues. Don’t they need to master the language more fully before they can use these “advanced” academic formulas and interaction gambits? Research has shown that teaching this type of “metacognitive thinking” actually helps students, even lower-level students, handle new and complex language more readily, without simplification of content. It empowers learners to engage gradually with more complex ideas (Goh, 2018; Vlach and Ellis, 2010).

Learning to use structured academic language can also create more meaningful interactions — “learning conversations” — between the students. This language provides students with “islands of reliability” for interacting in pairs and groups in ways that promote more “comprehensible output” — that is, speaking or writing output that challenges the learner to use his or her maximum language capacity (Keene, 2011; Graf and Birkstein, 2007). And in my own experience, teaching active listening strategies makes listening more enjoyable for the students!

Tip 5: Provide a clear purpose for listening

 One my own mentors in language teaching, Joan Morley, used to say, “The only way to improve aural comprehension is to spend many hours practicing listening…. However, a directed program of purposeful listening can shorten the time.” What she meant was that improvement of listening skills can be accelerated by immediate task completion along with feedback on accuracy (Morley, 1990). Morley claimed that this type of instruction provided “an urgency for focusing attention.” One clear way to convert this advice into instructional practice is to create selective listening tasks so that the students know what to listen for before they begin listening.

Common selective listening tasks include:

  • completion of a chart or table with specific words or numbers
  • notation of specific words or facts
  • completion of a text (such as lyrics of a song) with certain words blanked out
  • confirmation that a speaker said or did not say specific things
  • drawing a picture to conform to a speaker’s description
  • following physical commands (like “stand up, walk to the door,” etc.).

Tasks of this type can greatly improve students’ confidence in listening to longer or complex inputs because they need only focus on specific sequences. Many teachers argue that this type of task doesn’t really test students’ general listening proficiency, but that is precisely the point. We want students to get acclimated to listening to difficult passages by giving them the opportunity to selectively focus on parts of the text they can understand (Kanaoka, 2009). This type of practice has a scaffolding effect, allowing students to gradually understand more, improve their working memory, and listen for longer stretches (Bransford and Johnson, 2004). 

Tip 6: Use short segments to focus on skill building

Academic listening can be overwhelming for students because it involves sustained listening, sometimes up to 30 minutes or longer. Once a student becomes overwhelmed and fatigued, learning efficiency — engagement and enjoyment, as well as memory function — obviously diminishes. What I like to do to counteract this is to punctuate a class with intensive work on shorter listening extracts: cuing an audio or video track to just 30, 60, or 90 seconds of input. I may play the track three or four times, each time with a new task:

  • “Listen and write down just the verbs.” (Drawing attention to the need to identify key words.)
  • “Listen and write the full forms for these reduced forms.” (Drawing attention to reductions and assimilations.)
  • “Listen and tell me which of these words or expressions you hear.” (To develop selective listening. I write several words on the board, only some of which are actually in the passage to be played.)
  • “Listen and summarize the main ideas.” (Orally to a partner or in writing.)
  • “Listen without taking notes. Then at the end, try to reconstruct exactly what the speaker said.” (I may provide a partial transcript to facilitate this process.)

You might object that this type of activity doesn’t resemble true academic listening – as in a university lecture or a business presentation. That is correct, but in order to effect transfer of skills to academic listening contexts, students also need the training opportunities to build up the sub-skills of word recognition, phonological discrimination, extracting key information, and building short-term memory (Field, 1998; Goh and Aryadoust, 2013; Wilson, 2003). Working with short extracts also helps the teacher and students diagnose specific decoding problems and take concrete steps to remediate, rather than relying entirely on inferencing in order to guess “the missing pieces” (Cross, 2009).

Tip 7: Teach listening strategies through specific tasks

Listening strategies are cognitive and social techniques for “how to understand,” deliberate plans to construct meaning more deeply. Some have argued that effective strategies are a by-product of motivation and emerge in learners naturally without being taught (this is the “soft skills” theory), and others argue that listening strategies d o not emerge unless they are demonstrated explicitly, and that direct teaching of listening strategies improves motivation (Graham, 2017). The realized benefits may be a matter of individual differences and cultural learning styles. I have found that most learners will benefit from some explicit instruction in “how to listen,” particularly if it is done in the immediate context of a listening task.

What are listening strategies? In my own research tracking and interviewing learners (Rost, 2016), as well as through the research of colleagues (e.g. Vandergrift, 2007), we have identified eight recognizable categories of listening strategies.

1. Planning

Developing an awareness of the steps needed to accomplish a listening task, anticipating content that may be introduced, coming up with an “action plan”

Advance organizing: Clarifying the goals of a task before listening

Self-management: Rehearsing the steps to take to deal with a listening task

 

 

2. Focusing attention

Concentrating on the input and task at hand, avoiding distractions and disruptive thoughts, reminding oneself of the plan

Directed attention: Attending to the listening task, consciously ignoring distractions or any tendency to give up

Selective attention: Attending to specific aspects of the listening input, such as key words or ideas that have been anticipated

Persistent attention: Attending to broad meaning, keeping flow of attention even if temporarily distracted by unknown language

Noticing attention: Attending to new language, specific language, rhetorical forms in the input

 

 

3. Monitoring

Verifying or adjusting one’s understanding or way of understanding during a task

Comprehension monitoring: Checking how well one is understanding, identifying problematic aspects in the input

Double-check monitoring: Verifying one’s initial understanding and making revisions in understanding as needed, during the second listening to the same input

Emotional monitoring: Keeping track of one’s feelings, encouraging oneself to keep listening, finding ways to counter negative emotions and anxiety

 

 

 

4. Evaluating

Checking the outcome of one’s listening process against a standard of accuracy or completeness

Performance evaluation: Checking one’s overall attainment of the task goals

Problem evaluation: Identifying what specific issue needs to be solved or understood or what part of the listening task still needs to be completed

Revision evaluation: Choosing a second listening to assist understanding or selecting an alternative way of accomplishing a listening task

 

5. Inferencing

Using information in the input to guess the meaning of unfamiliar language, to predict content, or to fill in missing information

 

Linguistic inferencing: Using known words to guess meanings of unknown words or blurs of sounds

Contextual inferencing: Consciously using knowledge of the setting and extralinguistic features (items in the environment) to create or amplify meaning

Speaker inferencing: Using the speaker’s tone of voice, paralinguistic cues (stress, pause, intonation) or guessing intended meanings, facial expressions, body language, and baton signals (hand and arm movements) to guess intended meanings

Multimodal inferencing: Using background sounds, visual cues, supplementary text, and intuitive sense of the input to infer meaning Predictive inferencing: Anticipating details in a specific part of the input (local prediction) or anticipating the gist of what is coming in the input (global prediction)

Retrospective inferencing: Thinking back over a large chunk of input to fill in gaps and consolidate one’s understanding

 

6. Elaborating

Using prior knowledge from outside the input and relating it to content in the input in order to enrich one’s interpretation of the input

 

Personal elaboration: Connecting with prior personal experiences

World elaboration: Connecting with knowledge gained about the world

Creative elaboration: Making up background information to contextualize the inputs, generating questions that relate to the input, or introducing new possibilities to extend the input

Visual elaboration: Using mental visualizations to represent aspects of the input

 

7. Collaborating

Cooperating with the speaker, other listeners, and outside sources for assistance with improving comprehension or enriching interpretations

 

Seeking clarification: Asking for repetition, explanations, rephrasings, or elaborations about the language just heard

Seeking confirmation: Asking for verification that what you have said has been understood

Backchannelling: Showing the speaker that you are engaged, following the input and ready to continue listening

Joint task construction: Working together, with the speaker or with another listener, to solve a problem or complete a task

Resourcing: Using available referencing resources to deepen language and idea comprehension

 

8. Reviewing

Condensing, reordering, or transferring from one modality to another, of what one has processed to help understanding, memory storage and retrieval

 

Summarization: Making a mental or verbal (oral or written) summary of information presentation

Repetition: Repeating or paraphrasing part of what was heard as part of a listening task

Noting: Writing down key words or ideas in another form (abbreviated verbal or graphic form) to assist in recall or performance of a task

Mediating: Rendering ideas from the input to the listener’s L1, orally or in writing

 

(From Rost and Wilson, 2013)

But how do we teach listening strategies? And is it important for students to learn all of these various categories? Much of the language used to describe the strategies (“metalanguage”) is very abstract and unfamiliar to our students. Will this really help them? The key to helping students learn and adopt these strategies is in designing tasks, or steps in an activity, that focus on one specific listening strategy. For example, to promote “advance organizing,” we might give a series of images related to an upcoming lecture to the students, and ask them to come up with a list of ideas that might be included in the lecture. For “joint task construction,” we might play a segment of a lecture or presentation and have students work in pairs to complete a cloze summary of the section. And because listening strategies are conscious plans to improve understanding, it is important for students to reflect on their utility. At the end of an activity, we may simply ask, “What did you think of that activity? Did it help you listen better? Why or why not?”

Tip 8: Teach note-taking as a review tool

Note-taking is widely viewed as one of the most important macro-skills in academic listening, but there is little agreement on what constitutes effective practice. Different techniques have been taught, including the Cornell Method (columns and indenting to show relationships), Mind Maps (graphic connections to show associations), and Key Words (noting only key words and phrases to show sequencing and prominence). However, no one method has been shown to be superior to others, although there is evidence that certain modalities of note-taking represent deeper levels of information processing than others (Bohay et al., 2011; Mueller and Oppenheimer, 2014).

So does it matter if we have students take notes? Yes! Even though there is no consistent correlation between specific types of notes or quantity of notes and comprehension scores, as a teacher I have consistently seen a positive effect of note-taking instruction on student participation and an increase in student responsibility in trying to understand. I have seen advantages of providing interventions while students are actively engaged in listening to academic lectures — not just before or after. Interventions — short instructional episodes during a language processing experience — provide a way for students to focus their attention and learn specific note-taking strategies that promote comprehension. And as other researchers have found, I also believe that the note-taking interventions improve long-term memory during and after listening, particularly if notes are used for collaborative tasks and review for tests — or even if notes are allowed to be used during tests (Flowerdew and Miller, 2005).

Tip 9: Provide stimulating out-of-class listening homework 

Because accelerating academic listening involves nurturing a full-time active mindset, it is important to have productive outside homework assignments between classes.

For each course I teach, I try to curate a set of at least ten topically related YouTube, Vimeo, or TEDTalk or other videos, or FreshAir or other short interviews that are in the public domain. (I ask students to provide suggestions to add to the list as the course progresses.) This is a technique for keeping learning alive for students between classes and for “flipping” the roles of classwork and homework as needed (Jensen et al., 2015).

As a safety procedure, I recommend watching the videos all the way through or listening to interviews from start to finish first, to be sure the content is appropriate for your students. In a typical eight-week course for me, the homework for the students is to listen to at least five videos and complete a short task — usually some variation of “Summarize in your own words.” “What is one thing that you learned in this presentation?” “What is one follow-up question that you would like to ask the speaker?” “What are five words or expressions you learned in this video?” If the class has a discussion board in its learning management system, I may require that each student comment on each video they watch, and respond to one other student’s comments for each video. If the class has time for presentations, I may have students prepare a presentation in pairs, related to the ideas in one video they have watched together.

Tip 10: Demonstrate to learners how to “get an A” in your course

The concept of academic listening — and academic study generally — may be unfamiliar to your learners at first, so it is helpful to “gamify” the concept by demonstrating to students the specific active behaviors they can use to “win the game.” For example, in one of my CLIL (Content and Language Integrated Learning) classes, I give the students guidelines that include a number of “active listening” ideas:

How to Study and Earn an A in This Course

These guidelines are the best way to master the material in this course and earn an A:

  • Come to class on time, listen actively, and participate. Take good notes and participate in the discussions and in-class exercises. Be certain that your comments improve on the silence.
  • Participate in the online discussions and make use of web resources, especially the videos.
  • Take notes as though you will be explaining the content to a friend who missed the class.
  • Communicate with the instructor — about possible absences, late assignments, or anything else that will affect your performance in class.
  • Ask questions if you don’t understand something! Just because others aren’t asking questions doesn’t mean they understand. If something isn’t clear to you, it may not be clear to your classmates. Do them a favor and raise your hand.
  • Summarize, rewrite, and review your notes between classes. Don’t wait for the night before an exam to re-familiarize yourself with the material covered.
  • Take some action to personalize the material. Develop your own set of study notes, summarize each lecture or reading to a classmate (learning partner), or write out what you think would be a likely essay question on the test.

But aren’t these guidelines too strict? Don’t we need to be sensitive to learner differences? Don’t we need to modify course expectations to fit a range of cultural learning styles? To an extent, yes, but we also need to allow students to understand and modify their own study habits and to clarify cultural differences (between their home culture and the target culture) for themselves. By showing the “rules” of the system, we are helping them succeed, both in content learning and cultural learning (Hattie, 2012; Hofstede et al, 2010).

So those are the ten tips that can accelerate academic listening. Using them is no guarantee that all students will immediately increase their listening ability, but trying them out in your classes may well trigger some fresh energy for students to improve. I hope you will try them.

References

Asgedom, M. (2014). The 5 powers of an educator. Chicago: Mawi Learning.

Bohay, M., Blakely, D., Tamplin, A., and Radvansky, G. (2011). Note taking, review, memory, and comprehension. The American Journal of Psychology, 124, 63–73.

Bransford, J. and Johnson, M. (2004). Contextual prerequisites for understanding: Some investigations of comprehension and recall. In Balota, D. and Marsh, E. (Eds.) Cognitive psychology: Key readings. New York: Psychology Press.

Cenoz, J. (2015). Content-based instruction and content and language integrated learning: The same or different? Language, Culture and Curriculum, 28:1, 8–24.

Crawford, M. and Zwiers, J. (2011). Academic conversations: Classroom talk that fosters critical thinking and content understandings. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.

Cross, J. (2009) Diagnosing the process, text, and intrusion problems responsible for L2 listeners’ decoding errors. Asian EFL Journal, 11, 31–53.

Ferlazzo, L. (2016, September 9). “Why we teach now”: An interview with Sonia Nieto. Education Week. Retrieved from http://blogs.edweek.org/teachers/classroom_qa_with_larry_ferlazzo/2016/09/why_we_teach_now_an_interview_with_sonia_nieto.html

Flowerdew, J. and Miller, L. (2005). Second language listening: Theory and practice. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Goh, C. (2018). Metacognition in second language listening. The TESOL Encyclopedia of English Language Teaching, 1–7. New York: Wiley.

Goh, C. and Aryadoust, V. (2013). Examining the notion of listening sub-skill divisibility and its implications for second language listening. International Journal of Listening, 29:3, 109–133.

Graff, G. and Birkstein, C. (2007). They say/I say. The moves that matter in persuasive writing. New York: Norton.

Graham, S. (2017). Research into practice: Listening strategies in an instructed classroom setting. Language Teaching, 50:1, 107–119.

Hattie, J. (2012). Visible learning for teachers: Maximizing impact on learning. New York, NY: Routledge.

Hofstede, G., Hofstede, G. J., and Minkov, M. (2010). Cultures and organizations: Software of the mind. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

Jensen, J. L., Kummer, T. A., and Godoy, P. D. d. M. (2015). Improvements from a flipped classroom may simply be the fruits of active learning. Life Science Education, 14:1, 1–12.

Kanaoka, Y. (2009). Academic listening encounters. New York: Cambridge.

Keene, E. O. (2011). Comprehension instruction grows up. In H. S. Daniels (Ed.), Comprehension going forward: Where we are/what’s next (pp. 111–127). Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Morley, J. (1990). Trends and developments in listening comprehension. In J. Alatis (Eds.). Georgetown University Roundtable on Languages and Linguistics (pp. 317–337). Washington DC: Georgetown University Press.

Mueller, P. and Oppenheimer, D. (2014). The pen is mightier than the keyboard: Advantages of longhand over laptop note taking. Psychological Science, 25:6, 1159–1168

Norrick, N. (2008). Negotiating the reception of stories in conversation: Teller strategies

for modulating response. Narrative Inquiry, 18:1, 131–151.

Philp, J. and Duchesne, S. (2016). Exploring engagement in tasks in the language classroom. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 36,50–72.

Rost, M. and Wilson, J. J. (2013). Active listening. New York: Routledge.

Rost, M. (2016). Teaching and researching listening, 3rd edition. New York: Routledge.

Singer, T. (2018). EL excellence every day: The flip-to guide for differentiating academic literacy. New York: Sage.

Vandergrift, L. (2007). Recent developments in second and foreign language listening comprehension research. Language Teaching, 40, 191–210.

Vlach, R. and Ellis, N. (2010) An Academic Formulas List: New methods in phraseology research. Applied Linguistics, 31:4, 487–512.

Wilson, M. (2003). Discovery listening—improving perceptual processing. ELT Journal, 57:4, 335–343.

Zwiers, J. and Soto, I. (2017). Academic language mastery: Conversational discourse in context. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.


Michael Rost, principal author of Pearson English Interactive, has been active in the areas of language teaching, learning technology and language acquisition research for over 25 years. His interest in bilingualism and language education began in the Peace Corps in West Africa and was fueled during his 10 years as an educator in Japan and extensive touring as a lecturer in East Asia and Latin America. Formerly on the faculty of the TESOL programs at Temple University and the University of California, Berkeley, Michael now works as an independent researcher, author, and speaker based in San Francisco. Michael is the author of critically acclaimed works on second language development, including Teaching and Researching Listening (Routledge) and Active Listening(Routledge), Dr. Rost’s interests focus on spoken interaction and listening. He is also author or series editor of a number of successful EFL/ESL courses, including the global series Worldview and English Firsthand, as well as the academic listening series, Contemporary Topics (Pearson).

Designing a Superhero Movie Unit

by Lora Yasen

“You’re despicable. Dishonorable. Faithless,” said Gamora to Peter Quill.

This short line from the sci-fi superhero movie, Guardians of the Galaxy, provides a lot of material for the ESL class.  First, this list of adjectives in the movie makes a good multiple-choice listening exercise. Next, students can learn new vocabulary words and talk about the tone, informality and intent of the speaker. This scene is a good discussion topic also. What are some characteristics of a hero?  Is Peter a hero at this point in the movie? Why or why not? At the end of the movie unit, this line from the movie may be cited with a reference in a student essay on the transformation of the hero character during the story.

In my university level reading, writing and discussion skills-based ESL courses, I often use a movie and reader in addition to the usual textbooks. Superhero movies are instantly engaging, and a favorite source of language and cultural content for my students. Here is the process I follow for designing a superhero movie unit.

Superhero Movie Toolkit

First collect the movie resources. Find a junior novelization or ESL reader on the movie (which includes movie photos) as a student textbook. Find teacher reference materials such as the movie script online, movie websites, movie trailers, soundtracks and lyrics, comic books, etc. Official movie websites may have games, quizzes, taglines, trailers, etc. that can be used in worksheets, scavenger hunts, or previewing activities. Most have character photos that can be references for students to learn about the heroes and the villains.

Pearson English Readers have a whole series based on the Marvel Super Heroes

Materials Creation

 For Guardians of the Galaxy, I created a PowerPoint with movie photos to help students learn the character names, and different groups and planets. Later we returned to the character photos to talk about special abilities, motives for wanting the orb, and tragic backstories.

I created a listening assignment called, “Who Said It?” for the movie. I used quotes from the movie or website taglines that are important to the comprehension of the film.

“You keep throwing that in my face!”

Who said It? Peter Quill said it when Yondu reminds him the crew wanted to eat him.

Since music is such an important theme in the movie, I developed lessons on several songs from the Guardians of the Galaxy: Awesome Mix Vol. 1 soundtrack and discussed the lyrics, and we viewed the original singers in YouTube videos. Knowing the songs made the music more meaningful during the movie and helped students comprehend more of the movie.

I chose Scene 13 from the movie script for student role-plays. This scene, “12 % of a Plan”, is significant in the movie. It is a difficult, humorous, sad scene where the characters decide to set aside their selfish motives and unite to save the galaxy. Student read the scripts and then discussed the vocabulary and meaning of the scene before viewing this part of the film. Without this preparation, students would have missed this major change in the plot.

Lesson Plans, Course Outcomes & Assessments

Using a reader and movie offers plenty of opportunities to meet course outcomes and design interesting assessment options. I have students read 3-4 chapters of the reader each week. While reading, we discuss vocabulary in context, discuss parts of speech, work on reading comprehension skills, reading for details and do a lot of summarizing. We practice the concepts learned in our regular textbooks.  We begin with the paragraph and locate main ideas. Then we summarize the paragraph, then the page, and finally the chapter. We practice note-taking skills with the reader and make oral and written summaries. Unless the reader comes with reading exercises, I create my own worksheets that incorporate the skills and student learning outcomes that I normally teach in the course. To scaffold summarizing skills, students work in groups, pairs and then alone to summarize the chapters. Assessments include reading tests on the story and writing assignments on a character or a compare/contrast essay on the reader and movie.

Stop and Go Method

Every Friday after finishing the weekly reader chapters, we watch the portion of the movie we’ve read about. I turn on the closed captions and we watch the movie scene using a stop and go viewing method. I stop at confusing scenes to ask questions. Who? What? When? Where? Why? How? At the end of the movie unit, we watch the movie through without stopping to prepare for the final writing assessment.

Superhero Themes

Superhero movies reflect American society and culture and include many interesting themes for discussions or writing assignments. My students decided that one of the themes in Guardians of the Galaxy is that diverse groups of people can work together successfully to help others. Superhero movies are not simply for entertainment, they can be rich sources for teaching language and culture.


Pearson ELT offers a large collection of graded readers at all levels of proficiency. Our new series of readers is based on Marvel’s Super Heroes series. To search the catalog of all Pearson English Readers, click here.

Using Plays in the Classroom. Part 3: Digging into the Play

This article is another installment in our Helping Superheroes Teach series. The aim of this series is to offer teachers helpful strategies and practical tips they can implement in their classrooms.

By Dr. Frances Boyd and Christopher W. Collins

In our last post, we described and illustrated –with examples based on the play version of To Kill a Mockingbird – four activities that work to introduce a play: purpose of studying a play, connection to themes, how to read a play, and Socio-Historical Context. One of the most important moments in teaching a play is the beginning. First, it is important to get “buy in” from the students. It is also imperative for students to have an understanding of the characters, contexts, and events they will encounter.

In this month’s post, we describe and illustrate an additional technique to introduce a play –in this case, a contemporary play: Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County, winner of the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. We go on to describe the types of exercises and activities that guide students in comprehension, interpretation, and expressive speaking.

Introducing the Play 

August: Osage County tells the story of a family that comes together around the death of the father figure in rural Oklahoma one hot summer. This family has secrets, resentments, and lingering feuds; over the course of a few days, all of these themes converge into conflict, confrontation, and, in the end, mutual understanding.

In 2013, the play was made into a film that is very similar in content and dialogue to the original text. As the play is challenging, both linguistically and thematically, it is recommended for mature students at level CEFR B2 and above. In our experience, working with difficult themes, including drug addiction, painful family secrets, and the use of taboo language, presents worthwhile challenges to students and teachers alike. Ultimately, students tend to recognize the common humanity expressed in this story and make unexpectedly moving connections with the challenges facing families in their own societies.

To introduce August: Osage County, one effective way is to show the first few minutes of the film. The opening scenes introduce the primary characters, the dry and dusty landscape of rural Oklahoma, along with the decaying old home where the play takes place. These images provide context for the text, particularly for students who may come from far different environments, cultures, and societies. Not every student will obtain the full emotional impact of the story from the text, but seeing a film adaptation can support their imaginations and make the text more accessible.

Digging into the Play

Once they have entered the imaginative world of the play, students can be guided to explore the content and language through a variety of exercises and activities. As you write these materials, consider collaborating with colleagues and remember that, over time, the materials can be refined and reused. At our program, we have some units that began over 30 years ago!

Comprehension of Content and Language

The focus of this set of exercises is to clarify and review the main ideas and details of the story, as well as notice and practice new language. We suggest providing plentiful exercises, using the playwright’s divisions into acts and scenes whenever practical. As a practical matter, the reading comprehension and vocabulary exercises can often be completed as homework, while inference and grammar exercises tend to require interaction.

For reading comprehension, write items that help the students follow the narrative by finding answers literally stated in the text. For inference, in contrast, write items that require higher-order thinking, such as inferring motivation of characters, and inferring opinion or stance of characters or the playwright. For vocabulary, select a range of items: multiword units—lexical phrases, idioms, phrasal verbs, collocations—that are common in spoken English, as well as some academic words. For grammar for speaking/writing, create exercises based on the plot and characters that review and deepen understanding of the play. Plays offer an authentic context to practice, for example, description (adjective clauses), speculation (unreal conditions in past and present), past possibility/regret (modal perfects), as well as all major verb forms.

Integration of Content and Language

The focus of these activities is to go beyond comprehension and move toward interpretation and creation with new language. While we generally avoid asking students to do any acting per se, we do ask them to take imaginative leaps into the shoes of the characters. Certain activity designs fit the play genre particularly well.

For example, we’ve had lively classes with character description, an activity in which students (1) work in groups to describe a character, express opinions about the character, and explain the character’s relationships, and (2) present to the whole group.

In one class, a student, who unbeknownst to the others suffered from chronic arthritis pain, was able to explain the feelings and moods of a character in August, Osage County, who suffered from an addiction to prescription drugs, with uncommon compassion. By making an unexpectedly moving connection, the student transformed her own and her classmates’ understanding of and appreciation for the central character of August: Osage County.

In panel of characters, 6-7 students prepare monologues from the point of view of a character (“I”), making a special effort to use new vocabulary and grammar to summarize information about their personal history, personality, and behavior. The others prepare “provocative questions” aimed at particular characters. In class, panel members (1) present their monologues and then (2) respond to questions which require them to make on-the-spot connections and inferences. If the playwright appears on the panel, students can ask about inspiration, writer’s choices, and message of the work.

Expressive Speaking

If you want to focus on crucial but tricky-to-teach speaking skills—expressive intonation and thought groups—a play script is just the thing. How do you express emotion in English? Focusing on a manageable number of lines, students become aware of their voice as an instrument, an actor’s skill. This gives them both a new perspective on speaking and an incentive to experiment with the vocal range of English.

We recommend beginning with dramatic reading. In small groups, students practice reading 2-3 pages of lines aloud, with coaching on pronunciation, intonation, and thought groups from the teacher. Then, they meet together and read their lines to the class, with periodic pauses to identify the emotions emerging from the text.

Once aware of the tools of expressive speaking in English, students can choose a character and set of lines to practice. When ready, they can record a monolog on their smartphones, along with an explanation of its meaning and significance, and send it to the instructor for feedback. Stepping into an intensely emotional scene and speaking the lines as if you were the character can be a transformative experience. Some learners literally find their voice in English for the very first time. And it is a truly memorable moment.

In the next and final blog post in this series on American Plays, we will discuss activities for reflecting on the play and present some reactions from students and instructors in our American Language Program at Columbia University. We will also offer a list of recommended American plays for advanced and high-intermediate English Language students.


Dr. Frances Boyd has been teaching students and developing teachers for over 30 years in the U.S. and abroad, in China, Columbia, Kyrgyzstan, and Mexico. She serves on the faculty of Columbia University’s American Language Program in the School of Professional Studies, where she has collaborated on the American Play Project for nearly all of those years. She is co-editor of the academic book series NorthStar, author of Making Business Decisions –both published by Pearson, and a frequent featured speaker at international ELT conferences. Boyd holds the BA from Oberlin College, the MA from the University of Wisconsin, and the Ed.D. from Teachers College, Columbia University.

Christopher W. Collins is a lecturer in the American Language Program (ALP) at the Columbia University School of Professional Studies, where he also co-chairs the annual ALP Winter Conference, and he has also taught in the Czech Republic and in Japan. He completed his M.A. in TESOL at The New School, with a concentration in Curriculum Development.

Using Plays in the Classroom. Part 2: Preparing the Play

This article is another installment in our Helping Superheroes Teach series. The aim of this series is to offer teachers helpful strategies and practical tips they can implement in their classrooms.


By Dr. Frances Boyd and Christopher W. Collins

Preparing the Play
To instructors, the amount of time it takes to develop materials for a play may seem daunting. Yet, there is much to be learned in the process, and good materials written for timeless plays may be refined and re-used for years. At Columbia’s American Language Program, we have built on original sets of exercises and activities begun decades ago for a number of enduring favorites, including Tennessee Williams’s “A Streetcar Named Desire” and Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman.”

How to select a play? 

  • Look for a film adaptation and/or an upcoming stage performance: To give students a whole theatrical experience, you’ll want to complete the reading of the script with a showing of a film or stage version of the play. On the one hand, the similarities enrich comprehension. On the other, the differences create rich critical-thinking opportunities to predict, compare, and critique the director’s choices.
  • Consider reading level: In our experience, intermediate (CEFR B1) students are fully able to engage with the authentic, informal, and idiomatic dialogue in such plays as “Children of a Lesser God,” “Lost in Yonkers,” “The Miracle Worker,” and “Our Town.” The choices for more advanced (B1 – C1) students broadens considerably, including several by Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams, as well as “Inherit the Wind,” “A Raisin in the Sun,” “Six Degrees of Separation,” and “To Kill a Mockingbird,” among others.
  • Consider the topic: Family dysfunction, self-delusion, criminal trials, coping with illness and disability, gender, racism – this is the stuff of high drama in the American canon. Working with quality materials, an interested and engaged instructor can highlight aspects of setting, conflict, and language that appeal to a wide range of students. It is often true, too, that students pick up much more than we teach explicitly.

What about research on the play?
Understanding the context the play was written in, the world of the playwright, and the cultural and critical response to the play can help the teacher develop an overall understanding of the text to be adapted. Plays are reviewed as books, as stage productions, and as film adaptions; these reviews can offer cultural context and information which may inform the materials. Who was the playwright? What is their background and how does it inform the play? Learning the answers to these questions provide the building blocks for understanding the play itself.

What activities work to introduce a play?
 We find it worthwhile to begin with three short activities, plus a research/report assignment. 

Purpose of Studying a Play: Draft a list of the potential benefits that you see for your students. Here is a short survey task to complete with students at the start of working with a play:

 Discuss the benefits of reading a play and seeing a film or stage performance of it. Check off your top three choices. Explain them to a partner. Agree on one to explain to the class.

___ Become familiar with US culture and history through a story set in a specific time and place
___ Interpret behavior, motivation, and relationships of Americans
___ Understand complex family situations, perhaps identify with an American family
___ Discuss serious themes in an American context
___ Learn lots of vocabulary, including expressions used in speaking
___ Think critically about American culture
___ Use advanced grammar to infer, hypothesize, consider alternatives
___ Practice using my voice expressively in English
___ Read a whole work of literature
___ Imagine a performance of the play
___ Compare the written play to a film or stage performance
___ Analyze elements of film/drama, such as setting, casting, lighting, sound
___ Learn about an American playwright
___ [Your own ideas]

Connection to Themes: Craft a few questions that get students to connect their personal experience to key themes in the play. Here are sample questions from the materials for the play version of “To Kill a Mockingbird”:

Discuss with a small group. Reflect on a possible personal connection to the themes of the play version of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” [Harper Lee’s novel, dramatized by Christopher Sergel.]

  1. In the play, a father intentionally teaches his children crucial ethical values.Think about your parents. What ethical values did they try to teach you: integrity, compassion, courage, respect for nature?  How did they teach you these values?Did your mother and father participate equally in these “lessons”? Tell your story.
  1. In the play, a group of people is segregated and discriminated against in every aspect of public life: housing, employment, religious worship, the legal system, and so on. Has this ever occurred in your country or in your experience? Tell your story.

How to Read a Play: Select a short section of Act I to read aloud in class (in roles). Write a few questions that ask about: comprehension, prediction, and the reader’s role. Help students see themselves as a director: they need to imaginatively construct the story out of dialog and stage directions.

 Socio-Historical Context:  Identify 6-7 key words that students can research on the Internet and then apply to the play. In other words, they try to answer these questions: “What?” (What does the key word refer to?) and “So what?” (Why is this important in the play?) Such knowledge should enhance their understanding and deepen their enjoyment. Three-minute reports by pairs of students can be distributed over several classes. Here’s a list of key socio-historical references for “To Kill a Mockingbird”:

Jim Crow laws; segregation
The Great Depression; WPA
The jury system
Lynching; National Memorial for Peace & Justice (Montgomery, AL)
The black church: A.M.E. Churches
The Southern belle; social expectations of Southern women
Racial stereotypes in the l930s: how blacks viewed whites; how whites viewed blacks

To begin drafting materials, you’ll first want to be fully conversant with the play and the movie yourself. From this point, you will be able to identify the most salient themes for your students – for Connection to Themes questions– and the most salient aspects of the larger setting – for key words for Socio-Historical Context reports.

In the next post, “Part 3: Digging into the Play,” we will describe and illustrate the process of drafting exercises and activities for the heart of the play: Comprehension of Content and Language, Integration of Content and Language, and Expressive Speaking.


Dr. Frances Boyd has been teaching students and developing teachers for over 30 years in the U.S. and abroad, in China, Columbia, Kyrgyzstan, and Mexico. She serves on the faculty of Columbia University’s American Language Program in the School of Professional Studies, where she has collaborated on the American Play Project for nearly all of those years. She is co-editor of the academic book series NorthStar, author of Making Business Decisions –both published by Pearson, and a frequent featured speaker at international ELT conferences. Boyd holds the BA from Oberlin College, the MA from the University of Wisconsin, and the Ed.D. from Teachers College, Columbia University.

Christopher W. Collins is a lecturer in the American Language Program (ALP) at the Columbia University School of Professional Studies, where he also co-chairs the annual ALP Winter Conference, and he has also taught in the Czech Republic and in Japan. He completed his M.A. in TESOL at The New School, with a concentration in Curriculum Development.